Credit: Thinkstock If you’ve been tuning into nutrition headlines, then you know that consuming “fatty acids” can be quite beneficial to your health. The problem is that there are different types of omega-based fatty acids, and most Americans are consuming too much of the “wrong ones.”
One of the principles of weight balance focuses on “calories in versus calories out” for helping to maintain a healthy weight. The problem with this formula is that it ignores the reality that all calories are not the same in terms of impact on health and frankly, weight. Research seems to show that some calories have the potential to nudge weight gain because of their actions once digested. Quality of calories is especially important when it comes to discussing omega-3 fats and omega-6 fats. We do need both in our diet but the ratio of the two is crucial.
Omega-3 fatty acids like those found in fish are considered very beneficial to our health because they help to limit inflammation in the body. Three main types of omega-3 fatty acids, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), can be found in different foods. Fatty fish and seafood are good sources of DHA and EPA, while nuts and seeds are sources of ALA. ALA can be converted into DHA and EPA.
Fish oil supplements have been linked to helping to lower triglyceride levels. Higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet have also been linked to lower rates of depression, and some research has suggested a link between higher dietary levels and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and memory loss. Certain omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to reverse fructose damage in the body. It’s important to note that consuming high doses of omega-3 fatty acids can cause bleeding problems, and can affect the heart rate in certain patients.
A diet that contains the optimal levels of omega-3 fatty acids is associated with optimal fat-burning potential in the body.
Omega-6 fatty acids, typically vegetable oils high in linoleic acid, are pro-inflammatory. Omega-6 fatty acids has been suspected as a culprit in raising leptin (a hunger hormone) and insulin resistance, increasing the risk of developing obesity and specifically central obesity, increasing triglyceride levels, causing inflammation and increasing adipose (fat) cells and specifically adipose white tissue (brown tissue is more thermogenic). Studies have shown that increased levels of omega-6 fatty acids in the blood directly correlated with weight gain in young women. Omega-6 fatty acids seem to encourage fat storage. Sources include poultry, eggs, durum wheat, most vegetable oils and grape seed oil.
Low omega-3 fatty acid consumption and the prevalence of a Western diet among Americans are linked to increased appetite and obesity.
There has been a shift noted over 100 years from higher consumption of omega-3 fatty acids and lower consumption of omega-6 fatty acids to the reverse. This is due in part to the increased usage of vegetable oils and processed foods. It’s also due to the fact that animal feed has shifted from grass to grains, which means that animal-derived foods (meats, dairy, eggs) are also higher in omega-6 fatty acids. Africans and African-Americans (50 percent) may have a certain genetic predisposition that disproportionately allows for greater levels of omega-6 fatty acids in the blood when consumed. This may explain the increased risk of obesity and diabetes in these populations.
Experts refer to omega-6 fatty acid oils as “industrial seed oils” and the general feeling is that though small amounts in the diet are fine, they are really not beneficial to our health and can cause harm to our health, when consumed in current levels. Further research is needed but the consensus is that our diets should emphasize nuts, seeds, and seafood in order to increase levels of ALA and EPA/DHA, the healthy omega-3 fats that benefit our overall health. This dietary habit would support limiting a variety of lifestyle-related chronic diseases like diabetes and certainly help with weight control.
Researchers believe that this issue is worthy of public health policy attention. The recommendation of a low fat diet as part of the recently updated Dietary Guidelines misses the goal of meeting certain omega-3 fatty acid levels in the diet daily, while specifically addressing limits on omega-6 fatty acid consumption. Most Americans are not focused on these specific nutrients and the levels necessary for optimal health.
As you begin to decide on some New Year’s resolutions that incorporate dietary changes, consider focusing on the particular fats and fat-based foods you are eating, limiting unhealthy fats like saturated and trans fats, and aiming for dramatically increasing your omega-3 to omega-6 fat ratio. Aim for at least three servings of fatty fish weekly, choosing lower mercury fish. Foods containing these fats can be caloric, so even when consuming healthy omega-3s, focus on portion sizes and how many servings daily re-appropriate for your personal goals. Include foods like:
- Fatty fish (salmon, sardines, anchovies, herring, sturgeon, tuna)
- Flaxseed oil
- Fish oil
- Chia seeds
- Walnuts and other nuts
- Fish roe (eggs)
- Eggs fortified with omega-3 fatty acids
- Nut oils
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Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert. As a health media personality, she’s been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.